Tired of his impoverished life on the streets of Bamako, and waiting for a promotion that never comes, a young bus driver decides to apply his knowledge of the transportation industry to a new career as a drug trafficker in Daouda Coulibaly’s “Wùlu.” An occasionally over-ambitious but constantly absorbing thriller, this auspicious African debut intelligently connects the rise and fall of a ruthless worker to the political events that led up to Mali’s 2012 coup d’état. Structured like so many local-area tales, but delivered with a pulse-pounding thrust that’s all but unique among African cinema, “Wùlu” should make a safe, energetic pick for festivals and distributors wishing to diversify their lineups.
Whereas most of the African films to reach Western audiences feature characters whose hope for a better future lies abroad, “Wùlu” protagonist Ladji (Ibrahim Koma) dreams of a sweeter life but never so much as considers fleeing his home country. That choice speaks volumes about the intentions of French-born director Coulibaly, who is of Malian descent and aims to question West Africa contemporary history from an insider’s perspective.
Smart and quiet, young Ladji is a model prantiké (bus driver): He knows all the tricks to choose the right clients to fill his vehicle and the company coffers. A promotion would only be fair, but instead, he discovers that his boss’ nephew got the advancement in his place. Livid, Ladji rushes to Driss, a drug dealer who owes him a favor. All he asks is money to buy his own van, which will then provide the perfect cover to transport drugs, since cops usually avoid controlling those loud and overfilled public buses. Business goes well — so well that soon enough, Ladji and his two friends and partners in crime Houphouet (Jean-Marie Traoré) and Zol (Ismaël N’Diaye) are contacted by a shifty French businessman (Olivier Rabourdin) who offers them to go international and start delivering to neighboring countries.
The low-level transit worker is now a rich man who had himself built a gigantic house where his older sister Aminata, an ex-prostitute now professional party girl (played by Malian singer Inna Modja), organizes fancy feasts. But Ladji doesn’t seem happy, starting to realize that money can’t buy him the respectability he needs to date the beautiful and elegant Assitan (Mariame N’Diaye) and that keeping up such a luxurious lifestyle, money is about to run short anyway.
Everything moves fast in “Wùlu,” and the ease with which Ladji goes from honest citizen to top criminal surprises at first. But Coulibaly doesn’t give his character (or his audience) time for reflection. Soon enough, the young man is caught in a spiral of events that overwhelm him, when he has to deal with corrupt officials and when the drug trade moves into Al-Qaeda territory.
Veteran French DP Pierre Milon (“The Class”) brings an appealing radiance to this unusual plunge into Bamako’s underworld. Ladji’s fast rise from the bottom step of the social ladder to the heights of criminal power obviously recalls Tony Montana’s bloody trajectory in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” but with less recourse to violence and a perfectly impassive antihero. Part of what makes “Wùlu” so fresh derives from its hectic pace, which doesn’t prevent Coulibaly from adding an interesting political dimension to his suspenseful thriller, nor from incorporating Malian culture’s traditional five-step rite of passage, which should lead to wisdom, or the dog’s rite (from which the film derives its title). In “Wùlu,” Malian cinema has found a promising and intriguing new voice.